[Editor's note: Two issues ago, Urmila Devi Dasi in her column had some strong things to say about television. Now Rohininandana Dasa has more.]
WHEN I WAS BORN my father bought my mother a present: our first television.
In my childhood the television was pretty much the center of our family. We affectionately called it the "goggle box," and every evening we gathered faithfully around it. Looking back I can't imagine our sitting room without it. The TV is the first thing I think of, then the sofa, the fire, the rug, and then maybe the people in the room.
I used to hear people say how the TV had changed English culture. "Before the TV," they'd wistfully and, from my childish point of view, mysteriously recall, "people used to visit each other's homes much more, and parents and children did things together. They made things and painted and played musical instruments and talked." Perhaps the speakers regretted losing these things for the sake of the beloved box. But for me, life without the TV was unthinkable.
In fact, I remember viewing people and their feelings as if the people were characters from a television program. What people on TV say and how they look may appear important and dramatic, but before you know it you're into the next program. And you can always switch off whenever you like.
Switching off reality was one of the things the television programmed me to do. It was like a drug. At any time I could switch on the TV and get an instant effect.
The TV destroyed any hope we had for family intimacy. I can remember us sitting in the darkened room, hardly speaking a word, occasionally munching on biscuits, gazing hour after hour at the little black and white screen. Whether we were together or alone didn't seem to matter.
We'd watch TV until we felt tired, or until it said "Goodnight" to us and the screen went blank. Then we'd go our separate dreamy ways to bed.
So now here I am with my own family at a time of bigger and better color tellies, with remote control and a vast range of programs to choose from twenty-four hours a day. Someone even offered us one gratis. But we decided against it.
We did have a television once for a couple of months when our eldest child was a baby. A friend asked us to look after his TV while he went on pilgrimage to India. At first we stored it in a corner. But after a week or so we thought we'd see if it worked, so we plugged it in. The screen was blurred and crackly, but as we moved the little antenna around we got a picture.
Lo and behold if it wasn't Charlie Chaplin! We'd heard that Prabhupada had watched Charlie Chaplin and had sometimes illustrated talks by mentioning him. So we figured it must be OK for us to watch too. Still, my wife and I felt like a couple of naughty children.
After that we kept the TV plugged in and tried to manage it by selective viewing. We watched the news and anything remotely to do with Krsna consciousness, or at least in the mode of goodness nature films and the like. But, frankly, the TV managed us more than we managed it. We ended up watching stuff we didn't intend to. We wasted time, which for a devotee is at a premium because Srila Prabhupada has given us so many things to do for Lord Krsna.
We didn't like the way the machine began to affect our lives, sitting there tantalizing us, almost demanding to be turned on. We didn't like the way we'd get glued to it. We didn't like the idea of trying to bring up a family with a goggle box in the home. I didn't like the idea of a repeat performance of my childhood.
Let's face it, the TV "culture" is not a free society. I sense the power of the television when I see one in someone's house. Even if it's not turned on, it seems to be in the center of the room. And if when I arrive it's already on and my host begins a conversation without turning it off, my eyes and mind flash over to the screen as I try to converse. I have a vague sense that I'll miss out on something if I don't keep checking in. Sometimes, at the risk of offending my hosts, I manage to build up the strength to ask them to turn it off.
Once I was passing out Prabhupada's books and collecting donations when I noticed I was near a TV shop. All the sets in the window were tuned to the same program. I vividly remember that it was a thriller movie in the snows of Russia with tigers attacking a horse-drawn sleigh. As I stopped people to talk to them about the books, I kept glancing over their shoulder at the film. I wasn't passing out many books that way. I looked over at my partner and saw him working purposefully, a steady stream of people walking away from him with Prabhupada's books under their arms.
The more I became distracted, the more guilty I felt. Wasn't I meant to be busy in the topmost occupation giving people books capable of saving them from repeated birth and death?
But I was caught, good and proper. Eventually I stopped passing out books altogether and stared goggled-eyed at the window.
This little story didn't end with the end of the film. Oh, no. For the rest of the day the impressions of that silent drama in the snows interfered with my ability to be in the here and now, and you can imagine the result. When the last shoppers were leaving the precinct, my partner came over, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, "What happened to you, Rohini?"
My wife, Radha Priya, grew up without television. She remembers the embarrassment she felt having to face kids at school who were full of stories about their favorite programs. But both she and her sisters (who do not practice Krsna consciousness) are thankful now as they appreciate the gains of time and freedom and ease of communication.
As for the news, we sometimes listen to it on the radio. We've also used the radio for our home schooling. (We home schooled Radhanatha until he was nine and want to do the same with the other children.)
Apart from our fears, I can't imagine us having the time for a TV. There are always so many things going on in our home.
A couple of years ago Radha Priya picked up a miniature TV at a sale just in case there was anything worth watching. She has watched it perhaps half a dozen times. Although it lives out of sight in a drawer, I'm still wary of it. I did watch it once. I got halfway through a program about education when the batteries ran out.
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children. You can write to him in care of BTG.